Biden is getting Ukraine and Russia right after Obama fell short and Trump was a disaster

Biden is sending Ukraine equipment and weapons and vows harsh sanctions if Russia invades. But there will be blood and death before they're fully felt.

I don’t usually lie awake at night thinking about Ukraine and Russia, but that’s been happening lately. There’s a highlights reel that inevitably unfolds.

In the opening scene: My maternal grandfather, one of my three grandparents of Russian descent, telling us about how his Jewish family hid soldiers under the bed and his mother escaped gunmen chasing her through the streets.

His mother and the three youngest of her five children, including my 10-year-old grandfather, fled to New York in 1905. The story goes that they were smuggled out in a hay wagon under a haystack. The 1910 Census lists their birthplaces as “Russ Pol” – as in, Russian-controlled Poland

Their memories slide into my own: Decades later, the doomed attempt by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “hit the reset button and start fresh” with Russia. GOP nominee Mitt Romney's assertion in a 2012 presidential debate that Russia was the nation’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's apology, years later, for criticizing his analysis. Then, by fall 2016, Obama telling Vladimir Putin and his election hackers to “cut it out” and Democratic nominee Clinton predicting that Donald Trump would be Putin's "puppet." 

Author's grandfather, Isidore Smith, second from left, with his mother, brother and sister in Bialystok, then part of the Russian Empire, about 1904.

The flashbacks accelerate: Russia helping Trump win the presidency. Trump meeting with top Russians in the Oval Office. A photographer from the Russian-owned TASS news agency the only witness as the U.S. president spills sensitive intelligence to them and gloats about firing FBI Director James Comey. Special counsel Robert Mueller finding many contacts between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russians, and indicting multiple Russians and Russian companies. Trump taking Putin's word that Russia never disrupted U.S. elections, instead of crediting U.S. intelligence findings that it most certainly did.

Trump ignored Ukraine's dire straits

Then Trump’s first impeachment, when Ukraine was hardly a household word in America. Congress had already tried to help by appropriating military aid to the former Soviet republic struggling to preserve its democracy despite Russian incursions and hostilities. But Trump was holding up the aid. First he wanted Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the comedian-turned-politician, to dig for dirt on Joe Biden and his family.

Hand it to Trump, even in July 2019, when he had his infamous conversation with Zelenskyy, he knew Biden would be hard to beat. But Ukraine was already in desperate straits back then, and Trump was either oblivious or surpassingly selfish. Or both.

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A member of the Ukrainian border guard patrols a crossing with Russia and Belarus on Feb. 14, 2022.

Now, surrounded by Russian military might, unable to count on troops from other nations, its novice leader determined to avoid war and also to protect his country’s sovereignty, borders and independence, Ukraine is on the precipice of epic tragedy. Now, more Americans might recognize why Ukraine needed military aid in 2019 and why it was so tawdry (not to mention illegal) to delay it and try to extort a foreign leader for domestic political ammunition.  

President Biden has inherited more than his share of trouble. It was past time to leave Afghanistan, though like so many, I wish the U.S. exit from a 20-year war had been planned and executed much, much better and less painfully. If that was even possible.

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Ukraine is an even more excruciating dilemma. Russia expert Tom Nichols wrote in 2019 that Ukraine-Russia tensions could erupt into World War III. That is why Biden is so right to say it is not an option for U.S. troops to join the fight that may come. 

Yet the idea of Ukraine taking on Russia by itself is terrifying. Its military is larger than in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, in southern Ukraine, but Russia’s is still more than four times as big. And that's on top of Russia's cyberattack and electronic disruption capabilities. Meanwhile, as the Philadelphia Inquirer's Trudy Rubin reports, students, accountants, IT specialists, teachers, travel agents and other urban civilians in Ukraine have been training for war with cardboard guns.

Sanctions won't prevent lost lives

The Biden administration is supporting Ukraine with equipment and weapons, and Biden has vowed to impose harsh sanctions that will cripple the Russian economy and personally punish Putin and his circle. The problem is that first, before all that takes hold, there will be blood. Putin may lose money and power, but many others will lose their lives: civilians and soldiers in Ukraine, and Russian soldiers as well.

If there is no war, that will be a huge triumph – but probably not the kind that makes a presidency. Even in the midst of the Iraq War, which many view as the worst foreign policy disaster (catastrophefailure, fiasco, choose your Google search) in U.S. history, President George W. Bush was reelected. The dramatic rally-round effect after the 9/11 attacks kept him above 50% approval in the Gallup Poll until he had already won the 2004 election and started his second term. 

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Six weeks after the U.S. invasion, President George W. Bush prematurely declares the end of major combat in Iraq under a "Mission Accomplished" banner on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast on May 1, 2003.

So few actual wars end in ways that inspire pride. Declaring victory has been risky or impossible for many presidents, from Bush's massively premature “mission accomplished” boast six weeks after the Iraq invasion in 2003 that destabilized the Middle East, to the harrowing departure from Vietnam on Gerald Ford's watch, to Biden’s helter-skelter rush out of Afghanistan.

Preventing something bad from happening is a hard sell on the campaign trail. If diplomacy prevails in the Russia-Ukraine standoff, Biden will deserve much credit and hopefully will get it. If there is a war and Biden keeps U.S. troops out of it, and despite knowing the agony in store for Ukraine, I hope he'll get credit for that, too.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence